Art. Music. Pop Culture.
By: Julie Thao
Is there a silent killer in the Asian kitchen? Many Asian families will have in their cupboards, a stash or the world-renowned flavor enhancer, MSG. Commonly added into dishes such as orange chicken or papaya salad, MSG has become an essential for Asian families. “Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats” (Zeratsky). Many processed foods in the United States contain MSG as well, however it does not occur naturally in whole foods. The huge populations in Asia find MSG to be very useful, especially when resources are limited.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid (“Questions”). This amino acid is found naturally in our bodies as well as in other food, such as tomatoes and cheese. MSG was first invented in the early 1900s by a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda. His wife had made him a bowl of seaweed broth and he noticed a taste distinct from the other four basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour, and bitter). He named it “umami” translated as “savory” or “delicious” in Japanese. He was able to extract the glutamate causing the delicious taste from the soup, mixed it with ordinary salt and water, and formed MSG. It was marketed as “Aji-no-moto” or “Essence of Taste” in Japan. The Ajinomoto Corp., now owned by General Foods, now distributes a third of the 1.5 million tons of MSG the world eats every year (Renton). In the late 1960s, MSG was blamed for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS), where, after eating at Chinese restaurants, many customers experienced headache, chest pain, numbness, and other various side effects, however there was to evidence that linked the two directly (Ho).
Glutamate is found in different foods naturally. It is even found in human milk. Tomatoes, cheese, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, and fish sauce all contain glutamate. It has also been found in cosmetics as well as vitamin pills. The ingestion of excess glutamate was found to cause messages in the nervous system to speed up. It was also has been labeled an excitotoxin, thought to have the ability to overstimulate cells to death (“The Dangers”).
The US Food and Drug Administration has tested MSG three times (1958, 1991, and 1998) and has still recognized the chemical as safe (Renton). “Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe,” the use of MSG remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label” (Zeratsky).
Although “generally recognized as safe”, researchers have acknowledged that some people may be sensitive to MSG and may experience minor symptoms. In the Asian community, the overuse and over-ingestion of MSG is thought to cause excessive hair loss and a general danger to one’s own wellbeing. The use of MSG is to enhance flavor, not become the source of flavor, thus being the reason MSG is used only as a dash in Asian recipes. Avoiding MSG altogether is the only way of making sure it is not a harmful substance to the human body. Some names MSG may also go under are: monopotassium glutamate , glutavene, glutacyl , glutamic acid, autolyzed yeast extract , calcium caseinate , sodium caseinate, E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates) Ajinomoto, Ac’cent, and Gourmet Powder.
Zeratsky, Katherine. “Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Is It Harmful?” Mayo Clinic. N.p., 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
“The Dangers of Monosodium Glutamate.” PureHealthMD. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
“Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. N.p., 17 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
Ho, Emily. “The Truth About MSG.” TheKitchn. N.p., 22 July 2009. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
Renton, Alex. “If MSG Is so Bad for You, Why Doesn’t Everyone in Asia Have a Headache?” The Observer (9 July 2009): n. pag. The Guardian. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
Nguyen, Andrea. “Understanding MSG, Fake MSG and Umami: The Good, Bad and Tasty.” VietWorldKitchen. N.p., 2 Dec. 2008. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.